MLB insider Jon Heyman tweeted yesterday that the Mets were among a handful of teams that contacted free-agent catcher Yadier Molina showing interest in signing him for the 2021 season.
The most important thing for the Mets to consider before pursuing Molina is whether free-agent catcher J.T. Realmuto remains unsigned. As long as signing Realmuto remains a possibility, the Mets should probably put all of their effort into filling the biggest positional hole on the roster with the best free agent catcher in years. Any efforts placed elsewhere would be misdirected.
But if Realmuto signs with another team, the Mets should still look for a catcher via trade or free agency considering the lack of solid in-house options. Beyond Realmuto, however, there aren’t many inspiring free-agent options at the position, though one name certainly looms larger than the rest.
The possibility of signing Molina likely elicits a hard no from many Mets fans for very understandable 2006 NLCS Game 7 reasons. And beyond the emotional trauma he might resurrect in fans, the Mets should also consider the downsides in signing such an old and diminishing player in the hopes of him being their everyday starter.
In terms of time spent behind the plate, Molina is the LeBron James of MLB. He ranks sixth all time in games played as a catcher, and only needs to play in 77 more to break into the top four. He’s also appeared in a staggering 101 postseason games, or basically an extra season of work on his body, and has also appeared in all four editions of the World Baseball Classic while ranking fifth on the tournament’s all-time games played list. He has played in at least 110 games for the Cardinals every season between 2005-19 all while famously catching both ends of double-headers and often refusing days off. That kind of mileage should worry anyone wanting to sign him.
Even more worrisome, however, is his declining performance. Molina leveled-up from a defensive specialist in the late 2000s to hall-of-fame candidate in the early 2010s with significantly improved offensive production, but his bat has cooled off dramatically in the past six seasons. Molina finished last season with an 82 wRC+ a year after posting an 87 wRC+, both lower than Wilson Ramos’s 2020 wRC+ of 89. And while Molina finished 13th in CDA according to Baseball Prospectus’s Catcher Defense metrics, he hasn’t finished in the top-10 since 2016 and is no better than average defensively in his late years. I argued at the end of the season that Ramos (0.2 fWAR) was the worst starting catcher in MLB last season, but Molina wasn’t much better at 0.5 fWAR.
It’s hard to see how Molina would represent an upgrade over Ramos, or even necessarily a better every day option than Tomás Nido, but just like every conversation surrounding Molina, one must speak of intangibles. And no, I don’t want to bring up vague concepts like grit or leadership, but I do want to propose something difficult to quantify.
During the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Yadier Molina led team Puerto Rico to its second-straight finals appearance. During their run, Molina caught for both Seth Lugo, who led the tournament in wins, and Edwin Díaz, who amassed two saves and a win. Both pitchers improved significantly from 2018 onward, Díaz becoming an All-Star closer and Lugo becoming one of the most important pitchers on the Mets roster. I can’t see much reason to credit Molina with the improvement of these two pitchers, but considering how critical the back end of the bullpen will be to the Mets success in 2021, I think it’s worth asking whether Díaz and Lugo would like a reunion with Molina.
But that’s the best I can do arguing on Molina’s behalf. As Lukas pointed out on Monday, Molina will most likely stay in St. Louis and finish his brilliant career with the same team that drafted him twenty years ago. And even if he doesn’t, his declining stats and mileage don’t make him an attractive signing, despite the relatively poor free agent catcher market. If Realmuto doesn’t land in Queens, signing Molina might represent the best of a lot of bad options. He likely won’t be worse than Ramos, but it’s hard to see how he’ll be much better, either.